Ruth's Manuvas


My musical ramblings – gig and album reviews, music news and views

Friendly Fires: Pala – album review

Friendly Fires - Pala

It couldn’t be any more obvious that in releasing Pala mid-May, Friendly Fires are hoping to stake a claim to the quintessential summer album of 2011. Their post-debut mission statement vowed to breathe carnival into indie’s barren guitar-trodden landscape, and it’s with memories of some of 2009’s most unmissable festival performances that they return.

This new record sees St Albans’ most successful recent export venture deeper into their live territory. Named after Aldous Huxley’s novel, Island – a story of Pala, a doomed utopia fuelled by recreational drug use, trance states and tantric sex – it’s no surprise that Friendly Fires’ album evokes paradise from its very essence, only the kind grounded in festival fields and back gardens.

Doubtless, the album will cast the nets wider for record sales, but it isn’t a typical summer smash that’s shallow and too easily consumed. Paul Epworth’s intelligent production across the 11 tracks adds depth, maintaining surprise even after the first few listens.

Single, Live Those Days Tonight, is an irresistible slice of Mardi Gras percussive electro pop that takes the early 90s rave days down from their pedestal. Blue Cassette’s French, Ed Banger underbelly branches from that, with a chorus that bursts through a trademark silence and drop – a welcome chill factor for sun-soaked spines during the hotter months.

Pala’s pancontinental influences broaden with Hawaiian Air, where South American street party and Paul Simon meet, bowing to Huxley’s novel by “Skipping a meal for a G&T”. African imprints also crop up on Running Away, as do Paul Epworth’s production values, peering through vocals and chiming keyboards with an air of Jack Penate‘s Everything Is New. Back on firm European territory there’s Hurting – a slick track which ambiguously aims sarcasm at ’90s boy bands, with breaths of fresh air from Harlem Gospel Choir.

R ‘n’ B gets its Friendly Fires debut, mixed to unusual effect with tautly plucked math guitars on the album title track, Pala, which delves into the depths of Huxley’s landscape. Timberlake beats dip the toes a little further into the genre on the impeccable Show Me Lights, only this time doused with percussive atmospheres.

It’s over the latter few tracks that the band reconcile the old with the new, mixing the influences they’ve so far used on the album. Holy Ghost!‘s Alex Frankel guests on True Love’s bow to the ’80s, and Pull Me Back To Earth picks up the math guitars and afro beats, adding dizzying layers of sound evocative of Jump In The Pool. Chimes’ four-to-the-floor beat is welded patiently with a twinkling xylophone, while Helpless has soft sound effects and fluttering keyboards that match with its lyrics, washing like waves on a shore, all bound by solid electronica.

It seems Pala is Friendly Fires’ successful attempt to translate their positivity-injected carnival live performances into a record. In the process, it just so happens they’ve delivered what deserves to be the soundtrack to the summer; the memories it creates preventing it from forced hibernation through the winter months. It might’ve been named after a fated utopia, but for them, Pala is far from doomed.

Reviewed for musicOMH


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NME Tour 2010 @ Nottingham Rock City 9 February – Review

If there is any moral to be drawn from the 2010 NME Tour, it should be he who grafts most shall inherit the earth.

The four names from self-proclaimed indie gods, NME, felt a little different this year. Usually, they provide a somewhat accurate barometer for the coming year’s rising stars and big-hitters. But it is difficult to imagine The Drums, Big Pink, Bombay Bicycle Club or The Maccabees receiving the same hype on the back of the tour as Florence and the Machine, Friendly Fires and White Lies did last year.

After appearing on the NME’s 2009 bill, all of these three went on to headline festival slots and filled mid-sized venues on the strength of their own names. That’s not to say that the class of 2010 won’t, or haven’t already in the Maccabees’ case, but you get the feeling that it won’t come as easily for this lot. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

When I first heard New York band The Drums in 2009, I had a hunch that they would lack substance. Their Rock City slot confirmed that gut feeling, as it was only on their more light-hearted moments that they reached their best. And on these rare, airy, whistle-filled indie tracks like Let’s Go Surfing, they resembled the Beach Boys or Peter, Bjorn and John’s Young Folks.  On these occasions, they also managed to drop the over-performing and pretentiousness, as well as the faux-Joy Division/New Order vocals and riffs.

The Drums

At number two, the Big Pink’s familiar wall of sound was initially mildly spine tingling as they opened with best track, Too Young To Love. Having seen them at Bestival in a tent which made all vocals and melody indistinguishable, this was a welcome beginning. But like the album, A Brief History of Love and indeed, last year’s festival performance, the middle section left much of the audience with ear drums in need of something really distinguishable to cling on to amongst the distortion. It was the aural equivalent of being beaten up in a boxing match, and The Big Pink left the audience hungry for the occasional mid-fight rush of adrenalin. And when Velvet and Dominos arrived, as good as they were, it was a little late.

The Big Pink

It was the more traditional guitar bands, Bombay Bicycle Club and Maccabees, who stood head and shoulders above the previous two. The crowd was, for the most part, already a loyal cohort of fans gained from years of grafting on the smaller circuit. These two, after all, are the masters of hard work, having carved names for themselves through talent and acclaim and with little publicity. Both also had two of the best albums of 2009, the Maccabees with Wall of Arms and Bombay Bicycle Club with I Had the Blues but I Shook Them Loose.

Bombay Bicycle Club

The thing that never ceases to amaze is the tender young ages of these two. The Bombays have only just hit their 20s, but they possess exquisite, soaring guitar riffs, lyrical adeptness and a lead singer, Jack Steadman, with a deep, beautifully quivering voice boasting the warmth of a Sunday lie in.

In short, at the Rock City, BBC were mesmerising. At the risk of sounding gushing, every song they touched turned to gold. Even to the brutally young audience’s normally up tempo leanings the ballads became emotion rather than boredom. Dust On The Ground saw the band play boyish romance, tinged with a charming disbelief at hearing the words sung back at them. And at the song’s epic break into a barrage of melody upon Steadman’s announcement, “All is quiet now”, the reaction was its ecstatic antithesis. Their penultimate and epitome of tenderness, Always Like This, was the clear favourite. That same look of delight once again swept across the four piece’s young faces their own declaration of love was sang back at them.

The Maccabees

It’s a small coincidence that Maccabees’ lead singer, Orlando Weeks, possesses a similarly unusual singing voice to Jack Steadman’s. His was at least as well received. Reeling off a long list of best hits all at under three minutes each, the Rock City was taught a lesson in how to start off with a great debut, Colour It In, and to not only sustain, but better it in the shape of Wall of Arms. Every Maccabees song felt like a mini epic, where the band scooped up the audience as well as the brass section they brought with them into a euphoric mass, only to watch everyone melt as soon as the opening bars of Toothpaste Kisses hit the ear drums.

The boys, who are all still in their early 20s, proved that their rougher-edged first album tracks like XRay, Precious Time, All In Your Rows and First Love are still just as much of a tonic to poor template indie as their more recent. And both have the same lyrical charm and descriptiveness which makes the words worthy of etching permanently on the brain for such an occasion as this on whence to belt them out after a few beers. From Wall of Arms, One Hand Holding and Love You Better both roused every sense, made all the better with the brass section addition. Can You Give It? – a glorious knees up of a track – induced a boozy romp, whilst No Kind Words firmly positioned the band as a favourite who, after five years of hard graft, have earned this place at the head of the NME tour.

The thing is, this was all expected of the Maccabees because they have been brilliant many times before. After some years climbing up through the venues they have proved their mettle and set their own bar high, so much so that you go to a Maccabees gig being almost blaze about how good they are expected to be. Fortunately for them, they have an ability to keep that musical ball rolling and developing so that people’s attitudes towards their brilliance don’t evolve into non-gig-ticket-buying complacency.

Nevertheless it was Bombay Bicycle Club who stood out on this NME Tour, purely because their sheer ability was still new enough to be shocking. That’s no disservice to the Maccabees because they remain equally as fresh and sublime. Both they and BBC have that same hard working gene which means that unlike the first two acts on this 2010 tour, they will not only inherit the earth, but also the gift of longevity.

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